Why state media fails to make China look good


In yesterday’s Access newsletter (paywall), we looked at the case of the slapping CCTV worker:

As Luwei says, Kong Linlin and her colleagues are propaganda workers: Their main job is to make China look good, to its own citizens and to foreigners. So why would Kong fly off the handle like that, in the process exposing for all her role as propagandist, and damaging China’s image?

James Palmer, a senior editor at Foreign Policy, self-funded his early journalism and book-writing career for several years by working at state-owned nationalist rag Global Times in Beijing, and is very well placed to answer this question. In China’s global propaganda is aimed at bosses, not foreigners, he discusses several factors behind China’s expensive propaganda failures such as CGTN, including what may have been going on in Kong’s brain as she harangued the Tories yesterday:

Kong’s behavior may not have been a spontaneous outburst of outraged patriotism but a deliberately performative event, intended to boost her own career. And the twisted incentives that made that a good idea for her are also the ones that, as I learned in my own time in Chinese state media, continue to hold back CGTN’s attempts to become an effective international propaganda organ.

This makes a lot of sense, and a similar logic may explain some of the intemperate outbursts of Chinese ambassadors we have seen in recent months; see for example An undiplomatic diplomat in Sweden and China storms out of Pacific Islands Forum on SupChina. In both cases, the diplomats from Beijing seem uninterested in diplomacy, but rather cared most about scoring points back home for zealotry and ideological purity.